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500 Greatest Songs of All Time

Rolling Stone’s definitive list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

By Jay-Z

A great song doesn’t attempt to be anything — it just is.

When you hear a great song, you can think of where you were when you first heard it, the sounds, the smells. It takes the emotions of a moment and holds it for years to come. It transcends time. A great song has all the key elements — melody; emotion; a strong statement that becomes part of the lexicon; and great production. Think of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Queen. That song had everything — different melodies, opera, R&B, rock — and it explored all of those different genres in an authentic way, where it felt natural.

When I’m writing a song that I know is going to work, it’s a feeling of euphoria. It’s how a basketball player must feel when he starts hitting every shot, when you’re in that zone. As soon as you start, you get that magic feeling, an extra feeling. Songs like that come out in five minutes; if I work on them more than, say, 20 minutes, they’re probably not going to work.

Read Jay-Z’s full essay here.

87

Johnny Cash, ‘Ring of Fire’

Writers: June Carter, Merle Kilgore
Producer: Don Law
Released: May '63, Columbia
13 weeks; No. 17

Carter wrote this song while driving around aimlessly one night, worried about Cash's wildman ways — and aware that she couldn't resist him. "There is no way to be in that kind of hell, no way to extinguish a flame that burns, burns, burns," she wrote. Not long after hearing June's sister Anita's take on the song, Cash had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns. Cash's version became one of his biggest hits (inspiring cover versions by everyone from Frank Zappa to Adam Lambert), and his marriage to June four years later helped save his life.

Appears on: The Man in Black: His Greatest Hits (Columbia) 

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86

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Thunder Road’

Writer: Springsteen
Producers: Springsteen, Jon Landau, Mike Appel
Released: Aug. '75, Columbia
Non-single

"We decided to make a guitar album, but then I wrote all the songs on piano," Springsteen said of his third album, Born to Run. "Thunder Road," its opening track, is a cinematic tale of redemption with a title borrowed from a 1958 hillbilly noir starring Robert Mitchum as a bootlegger with a car that can't be beat (though the Boss had never actually seen the movie). An early title for the song was "Wings for Wheels," which resurfaced as the name of a Born to Run documentary. Decades later, Springsteen would marvel that he wrote the line "You're scared, and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore" when he was all of 24 years old.

Appears on: Born to Run (Columbia) 

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85

Patsy Cline, ‘Crazy’

Writer: Willie Nelson
Producer: Owen Bradley
Released: Oct. '61, Decca
11 weeks; No. 9

Cline wasn't impressed when her husband, Charlie Dick, brought home a demo by a 28-year-old rookie Nashville songwriter named Willie Nelson. Told that the song's title was "Crazy," she responded, "It sure is." But Bradley helped Cline make the song her own with a lush arrangement and understated backing vocals from gospel group the Jordanaires. Cline's vocals, cut in one take, infused Nelson's lyrics with slow-burn sex appeal. "Crazy" set the stage for a sophisticated new phase of the C&W sound known as "countrypolitan," although Cline herself wouldn't be around to shape it: She died in a plane crash less than two years later.

Appears on: Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits (MCA) 

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84

The Police, ‘Every Breath You Take’

Writer: Sting
Producer:
Hugh Padgham
Released: May '83, A&M
22 weeks; No 1

For their biggest hit, the Police went back to basics, junking an elaborate synth part that distracted from the song's hypnotic bass line in favor of a lick that guitarist Andy Summers recorded in one live take. Sting admitted that the lyrics — which sounded tender but were actually bitter — were pulled from the rock & roll cliche handbook. "'Every Breath You Take' is an archetypal song," he told Rolling Stone. "If you have a major chord followed by a relative minor, you're not original." Following Sting's unoriginal-and-proud manifesto, Puff Daddy would sample "Breath" extensively 14 years later for his own huge hit, the Notorious B.I.G. tribute "I'll Be Missing You."

Appears on: Synchronicity (Interscope) 

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83

The Beatles, ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Dec. '65, Capitol 
Non-single

This wry, wistful folk ballad was among the first of the Beatles' revolutionary studio experiments. The inclusion of the sitar, an instrument that George Harrison had recently discovered, was groundbreaking. The song, written by Lennon, is the tale of a late-night tryst — although it's electric with sexual possibility, the bemused cad ends up sleeping in the bathtub (and maybe takes his revenge by burning the place down the next morning). Lennon said that the lyrics disguised an actual affair: "I was very careful and paranoid because I didn't want my wife, Cyn, to know that there was something going on."

Appears on: Rubber Soul (Capitol)

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82

Fats Domino, ‘Blueberry Hill’

Writers: Al Lewis, Larry Stock, Vincent Rose
Producer: Dave Bartholomew
Released: Oct. '56, Imperial 
27 weeks; No. 2

"Blueberry Hill" was first recorded in 1940 by several artists, including Gene Autry and Glenn Miller. But Domino drew on the 1949 Louis Armstrong version when he had run out of material at a session. Producer Bartholomew thought it was a terrible idea but lost the argument. Good thing, too. It ended up being Domino's biggest hit and broadened his audience once and for all. As Carl Perkins later said, "In the white honky-tonks where I was playin', they were punchin' 'Blueberry Hill.' And white cats were dancin' to Fats Domino."

Appears on: The Fats Domino Jukebox (Capitol) 

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81

Marvin Gaye, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’

Writers: Barrett Strong, Norman Whitfield
Producer: Whitfield
Released: Oct. '68, Tamla 
15 weeks; No. 1

Motown producer Whitfield had a reputation for recording the same song with a number